Digitalizing Aerospace Manufacturing

Aerospace OEMs and their suppliers will emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic into a more complex and volatile global market, forcing the industry to examine its technology investment priorities.

Not only are manufacturers and airlines dealing with the consequences of an unforeseen, precipitous, and prolonged drop in their activity and revenues, a new global player in the form of China’s Comac is getting ready to enter the field.

Meanwhile, the production challenges that were present pre-COVID persist. In 2019, the global fleet as predicted to double in size by 2038. Although some airlines have delayed the delivery of aircraft in response to the financial pressures of COVID-19, production backlogs remain.

At the same time aerospace OEMs and their suppliers need to invest in developing the sustainable aircraft of the future; pursue market share with new airlines, notably in Asia; and meet airlines’ demands for services such as late-stage customization.

Faced with a challenging environment, manufacturers across the aerospace and defense sector are having to balance the immediate need to make operations more cost-effective and productive with the longer-term strategy of making manufacturing smarter and more agile.

“77% of CIOs name digital transformation as their biggest budget priority of 2021”

Putting data to work for smart manufacturing

Part of the response is tactical, with manufacturers identifying precise areas of design, manufacturing and inspection weaknesses and using specific technologies to address them.

It’s an incremental approach to digital transformation and has the benefit of providing measurable results quickly.

There is a growing interest, for example, in automated inspection and remote asset monitoring, as well as advanced analytics software that models scenarios and recommends optimal actions.

Manufacturers are also saving money by virtually simulating how the physical demands of production and real-world usage will impact a designed part, allowing them to modify it before building an expensive prototype. In addition, they are using software to gain more precise results from existing operational machinery, for example by testing and verifying G-code before cutting metal for parts, thereby reducing errors and waste.

An increasing number of aerospace companies are combining the strengths of analytics and simulation software to create digital twins of parts and systems, which draw data from multiple sources to constantly mirror changes to their physical counterparts.

Whatever the operational issue, a cost-effective response is best achieved when technologies put data to work to deliver on both immediate tactical objectives and long-term strategic digital transformation goals by making it possible to:

1. Capture reality
Digitally collect process data from physical and digital machines and systems so that it can be contextualized and structured for use across the entire operation.

2. Simulate and analyze
Run advanced simulations that either inform decisions on correcting processes or directly correct processes, for example, by generating new CNC toolpaths.

3. Feedback to operations
Filter and process data to visualize the key operational parameters and feed information back to where it’s most useful.

As the aerospace and defense industry ramps up production post-COVID and looks towards developing and building the more sustainable and higher performance aircraft of the future, it will need to combine increased innovation with greater cost control and efficiency. This can be achieved through a focused deployment of digital transformation that delivers measurable improvement to the shop floor, as well as the design room.

By combining analytics with visual software tools, operators are able to analyze data from across design, production and inspection systems to take informed decisions that reduce development and production costs as well as lead time. In this way they can create a more efficient and flexible manufacturing environment in which to develop the aircraft of tomorrow that meet customers’ desire for sustainable travel.